By Karen G. Hamm
On Sept. 23, I had the honor to fly to Washington, D.C., with the Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight as a volunteer. We arrived at the Leonard Post VFW Post on Walden Avenue at 5:30 a.m. for a quick greeting and organization. All 50-plus veterans and their guardians boarded buses for the Buffalo Niagara Airport. Tears sprung in my eyes as many patriot riders, police cars and others led us there in a moving procession down Genesee Street. At the airport, we were greeted by a live band playing patriotic music, along with family and community members.
We boarded the plane for Baltimore and mingled with the veterans, asking them questions and finding out which branch they served in. Each one had interesting anecdotes to share. On the plane ride down and back, I sat next to a 96-year-old veteran from Bradford, Pa., who was in the Battle of the Bulge. His son told me that after blowing up a bridge, his dad jumped in a foxhole and stayed there for a day and a half. I could have stayed talking with him all day, but the 50-minute flight to Baltimore passed too quickly.
Once we landed, all branches of the military and family members were waiting to welcome the veterans. Once again tissues were needed for an emotional welcome. While walking through the airport to our buses, people at other gates began clapping or saluting. (It is hard to miss that sea of red, white and blue shirts.) The number of total strangers who stopped that day to say, “Thank you for your service” was overwhelming. Tissues were needed throughout the day.
While driving to Washington, we had police escorting our three buses, which made navigating the busy highways easier. The people pulled over must have thought we were some pro athlete team. No, more important. We were traveling with American heroes and thanking them for their service.
We started the day at Arlington National Cemetery. Honor Flight Branch President Tom Petrie and four generations of a family had the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was very emotional for all in attendance. Then we went to see the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials. To see these grown men and women looking at them in awe was emotional. The smiles mixed with tears were what this day was all about. I saw one of our veterans at the Vietnam Wall and asked if he knew anyone on it. He pointed to six names. I had to walk away as tears fell down my face.
Outside the World War II Memorial, there were people dressed in period clothing, along with period cars and jeeps. “Kissing nurses” delivered a perfect red lipstick mark on your cheek. At one point I joked with a 92-year-old veteran who was on my bus, “Oh no, you better wipe that off before your wife sees it,” to which his grandson replied, “Don’t worry, Grandpa, I already sent Grandma a picture via text.” Grandpa just chuckled with a twinkle in his eye. Another veteran joked about his kiss “tattoo,” saying, “Nope, not washing that off ever!”
The day ended in Washington with a formal dinner where the veterans received mail call. Letters were read from school-age children and family members thanking them for their service.
We arrived back in Buffalo at 10:45 p.m., but by the time we got all of the wheelchairs lined up it was well after 11. The veterans thought their day was over. Little did they know that about 1,000 people were waiting in the airport to welcome them home and say thank you. To hear grown men tell me, “this just makes me want to cry,” made it all worthwhile.
The next Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight is Nov. 4. If you can, come to the send-off in the morning or the welcome home in the evening. And bring some tissues.